‘Big conversations’ into future of buses to start this month

Consultations on rural bus routes, which could result in traditional ones being replaced by taxi-style services, begin in Kent this month.

The county council is holding this series of public meetings just months after a U-turn on their controversial proposal to end subsidies to 78 services, including a combined 23 in the Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge areas.

By following this through, County Hall could have saved £2.25million in their 2018/19 budget.

But the authority ruled in January that the cuts would not be made in the light of central government grant cuts proving less severe than previously budgeted for.

Kent County Council Leader Paul Carter said at the time: ‘We believe there are smarter, more responsive ways to deliver these bus services.

‘This could include a taxi-bus-style service which links rural communities to mainline commercial bus routes, or community-led transport services.’

The council is holding 11 meetings around the county, starting on June 19 and ending on July 19. Four of these will be held in West Kent.

The authority has a 30-year history of funding routes for residents, which may not be viable if they were to run as a business.

Cllr Mike Whiting, Cabinet Member for Transport on the Conservative-ruled authority, said the main objectives of the programme are to maintain and improve rural accessibility for those without alternative means of travel.

‘We want to explore how we can improve connectivity for our rural residents and assess the viability of offering different kinds of services.

‘That’s why, for the next couple of months, we’re meeting with residents, parish councils and operators.

‘We are running our Big Conversation programme to see what we could do, and get feedback from the people that could run them and use them.

‘Once we have explored potential ideas with the market and completed our engagement with residents, we will work on developing these ideas.

‘We will then be working with transport and technology providers to look at how we can develop new ways of delivering rural transport.’

Liberal Democrat Councillor Peter Lidstone called the timing of the public meetings ‘ironic’ because the 7pm to 9pm run time is later than the time some buses run to the villages where they are being held.

He said: ‘Public transport is a vital lifeline to residents in rural communities, particularly the elderly, disabled and those who do not own a car.

‘Sending a small number of large buses along fixed routes is not working, so we welcome these proposals from Kent County Council.

‘The Lib Dems believe we need co-ordinated, flexible solutions to public transport in rural areas. Bus companies should co-ordinate timetables with train operators.

‘Let’s take advantage of technology to provide shared taxis or shuttle buses.

‘The Dutch have a nationwide scheme subsidising taxis to stations.’

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